The existential questions of awe and mystique.
jātasya hi dhruvo mṛityur dhruvaṁ janma mṛitasya cha
tasmād aparihārye ’rthe na tvaṁ śhochitum arhasi
Death is certain for one who has been born, and rebirth is inevitable for one who has died. Therefore, you should not lament over the inevitable.
In the English language, there is a popular phrase, “as sure as death.” The most certain thing in life is that we will meet with death one day. Psychologists categorise the fear of death as the biggest fear in life. In Patanjali’s Yog Darśhan too, abhiniveśh, or the instinctive urge to survive at all costs, is mentioned as a trait of the material intellect. But for one who has taken birth, death is inevitable. So when something is inevitable, why lament over it?
The Mahabharata relates an incident regarding this. During the period of their exile in the forest, one day while wandering the five Pandavas were thirsty and came across a well. Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava, asked Bheema to go and fetch water for all of them.
When Bheema reached the well, a yakṣha (the God of the lake) began speaking from inside the well, “I will only let you take the water if you first answer my questions.” Bheema paid no heed and proceeded to draw water. The yakṣha pulled him in.
After some time when Bheema did not return, a concerned Yudhishthira sent Arjuna to see what was happening and fetch water. When Arjuna reached the well, the yakṣha asked him too, “I have already seized your brother. Do not attempt to draw the water unless you can answer all my questions correctly.” Arjuna also paid no heed, and the yakṣha pulled him into the well.
The other brothers, Nakula and Sahadeva, followed him, but met with the same fate.
Finally, Yudhishthira himself came to the well. Once again, the yakṣha said, “Answer my questions if you want to drink water from the well, or I will pull you in, just as I have done to your four brothers.”
Yudhishthira agreed to answer the questions. The yakṣha was actually the celestial God of death, Yama, in disguise. He asked sixty questions, each of which was answered correctly by Yudhishthira. One of these questions was: kim āśhcharyaṁ? “What is the strangest and most surprising thing in this world?” Yudhishthira replied:
ahany ahani bhūtāni gachchhantīha yamālayam
śheṣhāḥ sthiratvam ichchhanti kimāśhcharyamataḥ param (Mahabharat) [v30]
“Every moment, people are dying. Those who are alive are witnessing this phenomenon, and yet they believe they are immortal. They do not get themselves to believe that one day they will also have to die. What can be more astonishing than this?”
Death is one of the favourite themes of poets. When Gray wrote in a country churchyard the following lines,
"The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave"
He was echoing the general view of poets who more than any other category of persons are preoccupied with the ephemeral nature of human existence and regard all the ‘glories of our blood and state’ as ‘shadows not substantial things’.
Therefore a poet and a scientist look at mortality from two different perspectives.
Science is concerned with the ‘how’ of things and not the ‘why’ of things. Most scientists themselves know this inherent restriction, and are not perturbed about it, just as the driver of a railway engine would not sit and worry about his engine not being able to fly. No wonder Nobel Laureate Medawar observed that persons putting such questions should approach poets or philosophers and not scientists for ‘solace’ if not ‘answers’.
Poets even at an early age are not excited about prizes, or trophies or recognition. They are obsessed with death and existence. Like Gray they hover around a country churchyard and write an Elegy, or like Shelley write "Adonais", a eulogy for his dead friend Keats, or like Tennyson write "In memorium" for his dead friend Arthur Hallam. Thus to a poet death is a devastating event that signifies the pathos of the human condition:
The young Byron wrote in ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’.
"Oh! God! it is fearful thing
To see the human soul take wing
In any shape, in any mood
I’ve seen it on the breaking ocean
strive with a convulsive motion
I’ve seen the sick and ghastly bed
of sin delirious with its dread".
Which brings out the full pathos and horror of death.
Between the ages of 25 and 40 no scientist would be preoccupied with death, except of course with the aim of finding a cure for a disease or discovering a law in physics or chemistry. By the very nature of his work he would be ‘ambitious’, wanting to be the first to discover something and win prizes, whereas a Keats or a Shirley would be troubled by thoughts of mortality.
The poet William Cullen Byrant was only 27 when he wrote:
"So live, that when the summons come to join.
Tile innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approached thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch.
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams."
In Shakespeare's " Measure for Measure" Claudia says:
"Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible ! "
Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet-mathematician, and philosopher, was among those who understood the human condition. He also believed that man is condemned to death the moment he is born.
As mentioned in the beginning of this essay, the same meaning is conveyed beautifully in Hindu philosophy,
“Jatasya Maranam Dhruvam”-
It simply means, 'Death is inevitable the moment one is born'. Anything born will die; anything composed will decompose.
Omar Khayyam reveals his philosophy in the following quatrains of the Rubaiyat
"Ah Threats of Hell and hopes of Paradise
One thing at least is certain this Life flies
One thing at least is certain, the Rest is Lies
The Flower that once has blown forever dies.
T'is all a chequered board of nights and days
Where destiny with men for pieces plays
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust Descend
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer and—sans End!
Ah, fill the Cup:—what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
Unborn tomorrow and dead YESTERDAY,
Why fret about them if TO-DAY be sweet!
According to Shahriar Shahriari, it is quite appropriately claimed that Khayyam was the poet of destiny, and that it would be very wrong of us to think that he was a fatalist.
There are two major schools of thought in trying to classify Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat. One claims that he was highly influenced by Islamic mysticism, and particularly sufism, and his references to wine and lovers are allegorical representations of the mystical wine and divine love.
A second school of thought refutes the first completely, claiming that Khayyam understood his mortality and inability to look beyond, and his references to wine and lovers are very literal and sensual.
Shahriari believes that Khayyam himself has given us a clue in one of his Rubaiyee's (singular for Rubaiyat), when he literally says:
Some in deep thought spirit seek
Some lost in awe, of doubt reek
I fear the voice, hidden but not weak
Cry out "awake! Both ways are oblique."
In Shahriari's view, both the above schools of thought are somewhat erroneous, and that the proponents of each, while half understanding the wisdom that Khayyam imparted, are turning and twisting his words to suit their own beliefs.
One only has to look at Khayyam's life to come to the same conclusion. He was a super-achieving genius. He was counsel to ministers and kings. He was a mathematical genius, presenting solutions to problems that were centuries ahead of his time. He was a highly knowledgeable astronomer, who calculated the duration of the solar year with unmatched accuracy, at least unmatched until this century. He was knowledgeable in other physical sciences such as medicine and chemistry (or alchemy at his time). He was a much sought after philosopher and teacher.
The very fact that he had the urge, the drive, and the discipline to compose and write the Rubaiyat, shows that he had a depth of perception and vision that we are still having difficulty understanding.
Shahriari rightly says that a man who has done so much in his life is clearly not a mystical fatalist claiming "what will be, will be!" To the contrary, he saw the folly of being mesmerized by such techniques, which may bring amazing visions of reality, but so long as they remain visions, they are not and cannot be the truth, the reality itself. Furthermore, a man who changed the world of his time and for centuries after, is clearly not one who would say, "since we are all going to die, let us concern ourselves with sensual pleasures only." He clearly saw that just as mystical infatuations were merely visions of reality and not the truth, sensual pleasures were also representations of a deeper joy and not the truth either.
Anyone who can so clearly pose the questions of mortality and temporality of our existence has obviously struggled deeply with life and death and existence. Khayyam understood the meaning of not being in control of our lives and deaths, and found the limits of our freedom. He understood what was important in life. And through his life, his teachings and his Rubaiyat conveyed that meaning, though in somewhat of a cryptic form, nevertheless complete and intact to us.
Khayyam, like our Hindu philosophers centuries earlier, understood that it was our fate, our destiny, something beyond our control to be born into this world. Like them he also understood that death was an inevitable fate for anyone who was ever born. He understood that our bodies come from dust and clay, and return to clay .
Shahriari points out that Khayyam understood the fantasy of concerning ourselves with the future, as well as the neurosis of staying in our past. He saw that all we have is this ever slipping moment, this now, which itself has a timeless quality.
According to Shahriari, Khayyam realised that in life what is important is that deeper joy and love for which we have infinite yearning, as well as capacity to both receive and emanate. His Rubaiyat forces us to ask those ultimate existential questions, and lead us down a path that, unless we are lost along the way or are destabilized by the abyss which we must traverse, must inevitably reach the same answer. Those ultimate truths that in life all that matters is love and joy. All else is fantasy and fallacy.
Shahriari opines that if we accept Khayyam's philosophy and heed his advice, then we will shift our focus from the external, be it mystical or sensual, to the internal. And if we go through this transformative alchemical transmutation of the soul, we too will become like Khayyam, men and women who change ourselves, and consequently our world, as well as the future worlds to come.
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